On Dec. 7, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a final ruling that greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide) are harmful to public health and the environment, and therefore subject to EPA regulation.
Many see the ruling as a play by the Obama administration to force Congress' hand in passing climate legislation, like the Waxman-Markey “cap-and-trade” bill that has already passed in the House of Representatives.
Cap-and-trade legislation would limit greenhouse gas emissions and allow emitters, like coal plants, to trade pollution allowances. This type of system was opposed by the Bush administration on the grounds that such limits would hurt businesses.
In the short term, it's difficult to tell what effect new regulations could have on coal-fired power plants in Arkansas. In the long term, it looks like the retrofitting required of coal plants to meet emissions guidelines could become quite expensive.
The state is home to three coal-fired power plants, and another, the John W. Turk Jr. plant, is currently under construction near Fulton, in Hempstead County. SWEPCO, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, owns the Turk plant. According to a spokesman for the company, the EPA ruling will have no impact on construction plans.
“The Turk plant is already able to do carbon capture in the future if necessary,” says Kacee Kirschvink, communications consultant at SWEPCO. “That's something that's built into the design.”
SWEPCO, along with another major utility in the state, Entergy Arkansas, favors cap-and-trade legislation. The alternative is to have rules handed down directly from the EPA.
Entergy Arkansas CEO Wayne Leonard, speaking at the Clinton School on Dec. 10, said Waxman-Markey is not perfect, but it is better than “command and control” by the EPA.
“Some of the people that are dead set against Waxman-Markey will beg for Waxman-Markey once EPA starts putting regulations on specific plants and things of that nature,” he said.
Entergy is seeking approval from the state Public Service Commission for an Environmental Controls Project at its coal plant in White Bluff. The changes would help reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions at a cost of just over $1 billion. The PSC suspended the proceedings after the EPA and other agencies raised concerns about the impact future regulatory changes might have on Entergy's plans to retrofit the plant. The costs of those retrofits would eventually fall to the ratepayers, says Glen Hooks, regional director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
“One question that we need to ask is, should we — the taxpayers and ratepayers — be subsidizing dirty coal — a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there — or should we be using our money to invest in clean energy?” Hooks says.
The Sierra Club is not alone. A host of groups oppose the Turk plant on environmental grounds, including Audubon Arkansas and a local hunting club. In June, the Arkansas Court of Appeals overturned the PSC's approval of a construction permit for the plant. The Arkansas Supreme Court has decided to review the case, but no hearing date has been set.
Eddy Moore, coordinator of Arkansas Business Leaders for a Clean Energy Economy, says that coal-fired power plants have more than greenhouse gas regulations to worry about.
“Within a year, I think there will be other decisions that require further controls,” Moore says. “There will be more rules regulating mercury, waste-water, sulfur and ozone. So utilities will have to constantly return to the PSC for more money for more improvements. When you finally get to the end of all of that, it might have been cheaper to use the natural gas plant in El Dorado that doesn't emit any mercury, emits half as much carbon dioxide and emits a lot less sulfur. Someone needs to be looking into that.”
Hooks says that, beyond environmental concerns, coal plants in Arkansas and neighboring states will have a long-term impact on economic development in the state.
“This isn't just an in-state problem, because the pollution doesn't respect state boundaries,” he says. “Arkansas is surrounded by states with coal plants. And if you're out of compliance with federal air pollution regulations, then that is going to affect the kinds of businesses you can bring in. If you want to go after an auto plant or another major job-producer, they're not going to come if you're out of compliance — or anywhere close — because they emit a lot of pollution themselves and they want to locate in states that have cleaner air.”
Hooks says the most frustrating part about the fossil fuels vs. clean energy debate is that it has become so politicized.
“What I hate is that it has turned into a huge political issue where if you're a liberal you're on one side and if you're a conservative you don't believe the science,” Hooks says. “The continued use of coal is going to affect this state economically, there's no two ways about it. The science isn't political. So ignore it at your peril.”